Defenders Of The Earth: a cartoon that should be a movie

Feature Philip Tibbetts 3 Jun 2014 - 07:00

Now we've had an Avengers movie, surely it's time for the original superhero team to make their way to the cinema screen?

Some readers may be fortunate to remember the evocative 80s action cartoon Defenders Of The Earth. If so, it's likely that you recall it fondly. The show was typical 80s cartoon fare, with robots, lasers, a tie-in toy line and irritating sidekicks. But the central principle was actually pretty unique and, if anything, it gets better in the mind of the audience as we mature in our geeky sensibilities.

The show brought together some of the major characters from the pulp era of early superheroics, namely Flash Gordon, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and his ally Lothar. The three series that brought these characters to life all began between 1934 and 1936. Indeed Mandrake is sometimes billed as the first modern, empowered, superhero.

Even though the Defenders Of The Earth team took half a century to form we can still think of them as the first Avengers style team. This concept couples the nerdish love of retro with the equally geekish adoration for the high action superhero ensemble – both elements that are good at parting fans from their cash. The idea of bringing the Defenders Of The Earth together was simply shimmering in cult potential.

This is why it’s almost a shame that this same potential is first channelled into an average 1980s cartoon. Without wanting to ruin any readers childhoods the series doesn’t hold up today beyond the nostalgia, the surprisingly exciting theme tune (with words by Stan Lee no less) and the novelty of the concept itself.

That’s not to say the show was bad, after all there is a reason that it has lived on in the memory so fondly, for so many. It’s a pretty good show – for the type of show it was – an 80s children’s action cartoon. Other than a couple of story arcs, and some unintentionally funny heavy handed drink and drugs episodes, the story telling doesn’t go beyond the usual light frothy rompy adventures that you’d expect.

It has to be said that the series does not really capitalise of the concept of its central characters. This is largely the failing of the characterisation and writing, not helped by the addition of a raft of young sidekicks that only serve to dilute the adventures of the actual Defenders. The most obvious single victim of the writing is Flash Gordon who has all the charisma sucked out of him as the unfailing, conformal hero.

Of the remaining three Defenders the writers seem to have trouble differentiating two of them – Phantom and Lothar. The first is used as a fighter who is quite strong and the second is a strong man who is good at fighting. And when the former of these two can call on the ‘power of ten tigers’ power-up sequence (which, incidentally, rarely seems to show all ten tigers) he ends up overshadowing the latter. This no doubt explains why the Phantom was really the break out character for the show and that to many the ‘power of ten tigers’ is a fundamental part of his skill set despite never appearing in any other version of the hero.

So whilst being a bit of light fun the series never really delivers on the promised potential. It is a generic 80s cartoon with some interesting characters in, which makes no real effort to explore anything beyond laser blasts, punches and illusions. Although nostalgically remembered it did not do well enough, unlikely contemporaries such as Real Ghostbusters or even Thundercats, to warrant more than a single season and as such the series and the concept has languished in sentimental reminiscence.

And there the idea lay until 2013 when Dynamite comics not only resurrected it but fulfilled its long promised potential in a five part miniseries by Marc Laming and Jeff Parker called Kings Watch.

Whilst Flash, Phantom, Mandrake and Lothar had appeared together on page previously as part of the Defenders Of The Earth tie-in comic, this time a completely fresh approach has been taken. Although it uses those same four characters there is no other link to the previous iteration of the team, beyond an appropriately fan-pleasing, tongue-in-cheek reference.

Kings Watch is effectively a reboot, but one that achieves the difficult balance of being both respectful to the source material and not afraid to make some big calls in telling its own story. Characterisation is very strong here with the interplay of personalities and powers really showing potential that has been inherent in this team. Parker even finds a particularly pleasing way of getting around the issue of Lothar and Phantom’s similar skill sets. A young and impulsive Flash is shown at the very start of his heroic career, Mandrake is a man haunted by tragic events of the past leaving Lothar back in a more normal life whilst the Phantom is suitably gritty and mysterious.

The story rips along at a cracking pace over the five issues too bringing in each character and sub-plot fairly seamlessly. Even enemies and mythology from each component of the team are not only introduced smoothly but woven into the story itself. The stakes are raised progressively over the series that leads to a finale that is not only powerfully climactic but also sets up the future directions of Flash, Mandrake, Lothar and the Phantom.

Kings Watch has clearly set up new storylines for its team members but in such compelling style that it would be no surprise if elements of this new origin story became popular. It does a great job of enticing the reader to find out what happens next as well as being a gripping and fun read itself. There can be no doubt that Kings Watch is the story that the potential of Defenders Of The Earth has always deserved.

In the past few weeks we have learnt that both Flash Gordon and the Phantom are in line for cinematic reboots. This of course has got our fandom reflexes going at the prospect of perhaps seeing them both, along with Mandrake and Lothar, feature in an ensemble sequel. In the post-Avengers Assemble world with even DC scrabbling to catch-up this seems like an obvious step to make.

However Kings Watch should be the blueprint, if not the basis, for the silver screen adventures of our heroes. Obviously the story has clear cinematic potential but there are also strong commercial and logistical opportunities. The story avoids the pitfall of hoping that three single movies are all successful before allowing for a Defenders Of The Earth film by bringing the heroes together for their first outing and simultaneously setting up individual stories for them each after that. This is effectively the reverse of Avengers Assemble but now the idea of wider cinematic universes has been established by Marvel, Defenders Of The Earth can benefit by cutting to the chase rather than attempting to expensively and hurriedly emulate it.

Of course the prospect of this seems remote for now, and likely at the mercy of character rights issues and the risk averse planning of studio executives. One can only hope that somewhere in Hollywood that someone might see and seize this opportunity. But in the meantime we can finally rest easy that Parker and Laming have fulfilled the potential of the Defenders Of The Earth in their Kings Watch series. A cinema adaptation of this would only be fitting for the characters but the comic itself should be a recommended read to any geek who once grew up on the cartoon (and who probably still can’t get the theme tune out of their head). 

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Master of magic, spells and illusions...

Ulysses 31 or Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors would get the go ahead from me

I want to see this. Who else oesn't want to see Ming the Merciless fighting Mandrake the Magician, while Dale Arden reduced to a sentient clump of rock is petted by Lothar's son.

I'd love to see a Galaxy Rangers movie (No Guts No Glory!)

How has a M.A.S.K film never been made?

I go this messed up in my head with Captain Planet and thought you'd all just lost your minds.

Galaxy Rangers was amazing.

Great theme tune? Yes. Better than Duck Tales? Definitely not.

You are not alone.

If the Phantom were to get the big screen treatment I'd rather it be a stand alone and they skip ahead to Phantom 2040.

Defenders of the Earth is one of the best examples of 1980s cartoon by numbers out there. Take an interesting concept, get scared that the kids won't relate to adult heroes so add teen side-kicks, then get scared you'll lose the cute vote so add a cuddly creature that makes stupid noises and gets into scrapes. Add the standard easily-resolved plot that worked on any number of previous shows and serve. One thing I've always wondered - who first thought that kids need kids in shows in order to enjoy them? I mean, did anyone ever pretend to be Flash Gordan's kid when playing this in the school playground? Or was the big fight over who could be Boxy when playing Battlestar Galactica? I certainly never thought - "hey, that Knight Rider/Incredible Hulk/A Team/Buck Rogers is great, but I wish they'd have a kid brother for me to identify with".

Didn't Billy Zane already do this movie back in the 90s?

Didn't Billy Zane already do a movie of the Phantom back in the 90s? I never watched it, but I remember seeing the trailer when it came out and thinking "My gods, that looks awful."

Can we then have a Bravestarr movie?

Just my (mostly) humble opinion, but the Phantom and Flash Gordon are two of the worst super heroes ever. However, I'd watch a Mandrake film...

A brilliant series. I'd also love to see Cowboy Bebop as well.

Yes and as a long time Phantom fan it was god-awful. Having thought about it alot over the years I'm just not sure a Phantom movie can really work in a modern day context. His character really is from another time when the world was less explored and native people were "savages". His main adversary are a bunch of pirates. How many americans (Hollywoods target audience) worry about high seas piracy anymore? While the comic has changed a lot of that over the years his origins are really hard to translate to the 21st century.

It could be done. When the Thor movie was first announced, I thought "How can they make a superhero that is a god seem plausible?" (well, as plausible as possible) and assumed it would be super-cheesy. But they did a fantastic job. Maybe something could be done with this too...

Nearly all of the 80's/early 90's cartoons are deserving of a big screen treatment, they were quality, never since matched. The one that stood head ans shoulders above the rest however was Ulysses 31, prime for a single or even multiple movie format.

Nah, this is scraping the barrel. I'd like to see a very dark swamp thing film that would be fun. Enough of the rubbish 80s and 90s reboots and adaptations. What's next? A gritty, violent reboot of button moon, they could make it an expanded universe by doing a crossover with the clangers.

Power extreme!!! You know what I'm taking about.

I enjoyed "The Phantom" - doing it as a 1930s period piece was great, it had that Indiana Jones-vibe going for it (the screenwriter also wrote "Last Crusade"), and it had one heck of a cast.

Never mind this. I want Disney to give us a 1940s team-up of their properties Captain America, Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer.

Doc Savage NOW!!!

Im sure my Nans dog ate my Flash Gordon from this TV show, was that where its fate was sealed? I apologise if so.

Nice to see guys in their 30s doing something.

Agree about Thor. As I said, long time fan so I would love to be proven wrong but, I think that they would have to change a lot. The costume for a start. Wish I could go back in time and slap the guy who decided that it should be purple. It's ment to be grey!

It wasn't all bad. Billy Zane was good and clearly loved the character. Enjoyed the scenes on the boat and in New York. However, Treat Williams was waaay over the top, the two main action sequences of the truck on the rope bridge and the plane to horse were badly done and the ending falls apart rather quickly. The whole fourth skull power was laughable.

:D Loved this show to bits as a kid! Most of my friends never saw it (that and Dinoroders, which i think would make an interesting movie). DOTE as a movie though? Hell yes. Just get rid of those bloody kids.

A Jayce and the wheeled warriors movie would be epic... but didn't they all die in the end?

What about a Centurions or Visionaries film. Some other classic cartoons.

I'd watch it :P

Don't think so, been a while though. I thought they reunited the root, almost all of the episodes are on you tube. Epic intro as well

That music is really bad ! Give me Dungeons & Dragons any day (just make Vengar eat Uni please ! (Meh!)

They could just about crowd fund the entire thing

Sometimes I think the mistake in these things is beginning with the assumption that they must be made to seem plausible.

As an avid reader of the comics in my youth, i quite liked the movie. Yes, the whole laser beam from the ring thing was sh*t, but apart from that I really enjoyed it. And, for me, Treat Williams was GLORIOUSLY over the top :-)

An interview on this site with Joe Dante from about 6 years ago revealed that the original script he developed with Jeff Bloam was written as a spoof. That actually explains a lot.

Shane Gooseman - best character of all time

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